[Banner photo courtesy of Travis Dulany]
If you’re a fan of gambling, you’d relate to the experience of chasing a professional cycling race. At the risk of encouraging compulsive behavior, I suggest following the Amgen Tour of California next year. While the withdrawal is real, the payout is, too.
Like most years, the 2018 AToC flew by at the speed of a peloton – literally. It involved intriguing little towns like Folsom, the beauty of South Lake Tahoe, and the madness that is SacTown. Regardless of the year, days typically start early with short road trips to the middle of nowhere or the downtown of a city, jumping out of a car and walking fast, jogging some, then waiting two minutes or two hours – just enough time to form a small community and make new friends before pro cyclists whiz by at +/-20 mph on a climb, +/-30 mph on a flat-ish road, or about 45 mph in a sprint finish. Like a junky needing that next fix, fans jump back into cars and drive faster than safety recommendations, hoping the roads stay open long enough to make it to the next point of action and catch another race moment.
DAY 1 (Stage 4 – 21.6-mile Individual Time Trial): If you weren’t able to follow the week-long race in its entirety, you might have arrived mid-week for the individual time trial, a stage that significantly reshuffled race standings. This year, the high point of the stage was near Morgan Hill. Maybe you parked your car at the Chesbro Reservoir and walked 3+ miles and when you arrived, it was appropriately marked by a tent for Floyd’s of Leadville, its motto being “Relax and Recover.” Yes, that Floyd, and that sort of relax.
The Tour of the Gila cycling race takes place in New Mexico about a month before the AToC and each year, my husband and I lament the year he went to photograph the event and passed Floyd Landis walking down the road, alone, after the race (2009?). Uncertain of Landis’ state of mind – why wasn’t he in his team bus? – my husband did not offer a ride. This year, that image drove me to google Landis, and I found a recent article that succinctly details his fall from grace and what he’s up to these days, i.e. that tent and inflatable furniture bearing the business name and motto. Neil, a personable man who works for Floyd, got more than his fair share of honks and waves from team cars with men hanging out their windows, yelling, “Is Floyd here?!” This year, in April, Floyd received news that Lance agreed to pay $1.1 million to Landis and $1.65 million to cover Landis’ legal fees in a $5 million total settlement with the federal government.
Standing at a lower point of the high point community, antler guy, or RackMan, I’ve decided to call him (the joke goes he has a good rack on him. Haha), was getting his Slovakian flag ready for three-time reigning world champion Peter Sagan to ride by. If you’ve watched an AToC broadcast in any given year, you’ve seen RackMan wearing a football helmet with racks of assorted animals attached, running alongside cyclists.
If you’ve made a sign that reads: It’s All Downhill from Here (it wasn’t, but it could have been a lot worse), you’d notice several cyclists are mildly entertained. A point and smile from sprinter Mark Cavendish would be the best reaction.
American Tejay van Garderen raced by looking fast, smooth, and determined. Though capable, he was the largely unexpected winner of the time trial and overall race leader by day’s end. If you thought to get dinner close to the stage finish, you perhaps bumped into van Garderen boarding his team bus, but not before agreeing to pose for one more photo because he had that winning feeling. You felt like you’d just won the lottery.
DAY 2 (Stage 5 – Sprint Stage): Not unlike the addict who’s hit rock bottom, you spend the better part of this day shamelessly standing near a sign announcing Begin Waste Zone. Your own sign is bargaining: Will Cheer for Musette and Snacks. This is an effort when the wait is long and the show is short, but if shwag is what you want, shwag is what you get. Fix procured, you walk away with +/-10 team water bottles, three musette bags, a couple energy bars including a CLIF Kid Zbar, and several smooshed sticky rice blocks that may or may not be edible. (I’ve tasted the diluted liquid in water bottles, including Sagan’s. It’s not bad. Hydrating, surely. It’s a Hell No to the thicker, recovery “sludge” liquid, though. I’m not eating a smooshed rice block unless double dog dared, but the CLIF Kid bar was tasty.)
Initially, it seemed teams had figured that while the Critérium du Dauphiné is where to send their emaciated, mountain climbing General Classification (overall win in time) contenders, the Amgen Tour of California is where to send quad-blessed sprinters, all in preparation for the Tour de France. With 13 of the top world sprinters in the AToC this year, it promised to be one of the most exciting sprinting races leading up to the TdF, ever. Marcel Kittel, Cavendish, Sagan, new Aussie sprinting phenom, Caleb Ewan, Quick-Step sprinting phenom, Fernando Gaviria, along with Alexander Kristoff and a couple more with a good chance, raced. (André Greipel broke his collarbone in a crash in March.) Instead, the AToC shaped up to be the Gaviria/Ewan/Sagan show in that order. Perhaps some were recovering from early-season efforts like Paris-Roubaix, a cobblestone race so jarring, your knees are around your ankles by the finish, won this year by Sagan. Others were incrementally building for the TdF. If you were following Ewan for the first time, knowing nothing about him other than that he is your namesake, you were rewarded with the excitement of two second and one third place finishes. Ewan and Gaviria are the new names to listen for at the Tour de France.
Morning fixes wear off quickly, so you and other Trash Zone dwellers drive to the stage finish point, jam-packed with expectant fans. There’s space just after the finish line on a corner. By then, cyclists are coasting, and Sagan congratulates Gaviria on his second win of the week. It’s a short jog to team RVs to seek Cavendish’s autograph (he’s had a tough stage, though, flatting at a time when he needed to conserve energy for the sprint; a tough season, with injury; and the imminent birth of another son with wife Peta Todd on his mind – born the following Tuesday). Cav is moving around inside, but he won’t leave the RV. He agrees through a middle man to write a note in your copy of his book and when you yell, “Thanks, Mark,” he yells, “You’re welcome.” High again.
There were two Tejay/TJs in this AToC, both American. The second, Taylor “TJ” Eisenhart, was presumably plucked off his surfboard from the beaches of San Diego and made to peddle a bike, which he’s totes stoked about. Dude, like, watch his podcasts and you’ll totally understand and feel the love, man. Among favorite podcast quotes:
Friends don’t let friends get haircuts
He does not disappoint in person. Charming the next generation of cycling fans, he hands out turquoise bracelets to fans of all ages whose names he asks, poses for photos, and spreads general cheer – the sum of which only a youthful ray of sunshine such as himself might have the energy for.
DAY 3 (Stage 6 – Final Mountain Stage): There’s visible tension among the majority of the cyclists. It’s the earliest morning start of the week and a stage in which they face seven mountain summits. The GC contenders and their teams are set to battle for what is all but a guaranteed classification for the race overall.
Fans can gamble to upgrade the quality of their high by paying a chunk of change to get more physical proximity to the pros as they mosey toward the stage to sign in for the day. Whilst munching breakfast sandwiches and cinnamon rolls and sipping Peet’s coffee, reading the race program, and stashing mini AToC cowbells in their backpacks, lucky fans get autographs and posed photos.
After watching the race roll out, a glutton for failure, you jump in your car and speed to catch the first sprint point of the day, but miss it by five minutes, hence that amazing parking place…. It’s back to the car to drive up a mountain, park on the edge of a precipice, walk-jog on a closed road, stand for two minutes with a new, fast-formed community, hold a modified sign that reads, “It’s >NOT< All Downhill from Here (Sorry),” and catch the peloton as they ride by in two blinks of an eye (it’s uphill).
Late into the relentless stage, 21-year-old Egan Bernal pulls a "Sky Shred," riding the yellow jersey and ultimately the race win away from van Garderen (as Team Sky commonly does, with inevitable suspect).
DAY 4 (Stage 7, Sprint final): The men slowly roll by to sign in and hit the road for the final stage. The women sign in and tackle an 8-corner, 20-lap circuit race around the Capitol of SacTown. It’s a spectacle to be shared with friends, including a cycling enthusiast at his first race, and his wife, partaking in the gateway race that hooks her to cycling. The overall race win goes to American Katie Hall.
It’s rare to see a podium snafu, but after the men finish, Ewan is ushered onstage and dressed in an oversized green jersey with a QuickStep logo on the front – an obvious mistake for the 5’5” sprinter on team Mitchelton-Scott. He’d worn the green points leader jersey until Gaviria won the final sprint and points that day. The jersey is removed from Ewan and he’s handed a bouquet of flowers, as a consolation, it appears. He fumbles with them in visible disappointment before being ushered offstage.
Fans get one last look at cyclists as they sign autographs and partake in post-race team picnics, women and men. The party is winding down. Perhaps strolling back along the race route toward a hotel, you recognize Ewan, likely just off the podium. “Oh! Can I please get a photo with you? We have the same last name, so I’ve been following you and you’ve done really well! It’s been fun to watch.” One can only hope it cheers the spirit to hear such a thing – having no idea of his podium experience (until 30 minutes later). “Sure, thanks. Here are some flowers for you,” he says. Podium flowers. One last fix. Flowers resistant enough to fly home and revive when dunked in water. Here’s wishing the same resistance for Ewan, who will try his luck at the Tour de France this year.
The buzz wears off in the wee hours of the morning, the police announcing over a loud speaker heard from the 8th floor of a hotel, “Okay everyone, time to go home.”
If a year is too long to wait for the next dose, the Tour de France is in July. Following a race broadcast – yes – there will still be withdrawal.
TIMBITS: AToC podium women were not obliged to wear heels and kiss salty winners. Keep an eye out for changes in procedure at the Tour de France, as well.
Again, the AToC paid women and men equal prize money (as did the Australian Tour Down Under) ‘cause, you know, #TimesUp. And American women pro cyclists are currently succeeding on an international level at a greater rate than men (the Tour of California is an international race).
Here’s a comprehensive list of where you should send money if you’re a cyclist, mountain biker, or lover of one or both (no judgment).
It took a while to sleuth this, but the women’s team Hagens Berman Supermint has the word “Supermint” in its name because:
To my disappointment Supermint is purely our brand name, no free toothpaste and dental appointments. Initially Jono Coulter, the team owner and Director sportif (DS) wanted just mint as our team name. Jono comes from Brisbane Australia and is a true blue aussie, slang and all. Mint means awesome or rad. Unfortunately, mint was already taken so what’s one up from mint…SUPERMINT!
Cheers to a mint summer, y’all!